“Chinatown as Almost a Stage Within a Stage” – Metrograph’s Aliza Ma on ‘Imaginary Chinatown’

Imaginary Chinatown

Last week, Lower East Side art house cinema Metrograph began the series Imaginary Chinatown which surveys the ways Hollywood has used Chinatowns as a setting.  As the center for immigrant communities, Chinatowns may naturally seem foreign to those outside, but Hollywood embellished and hyperbolized the unknown to create a mythos about Chinatown — an outsider’s reconstruction of the community and its people, a projection of the West’s oriental fantasy, and a convenient backdrop for the films.  Visual storytelling is a powerful thing, and the Chinatown imagined by Hollywood — with exotic designs, tales of vice, and inscrutable denizens — defined Chinatown and the Chinese diaspora in the minds of many.

The 12-film series, which runs through October 8, presents an eclectic selection of films spanning from 1919 to 2002 that reveal a “complex tradition of Chinatown on film.”  As a companion to this series, Metrograph also presents the series Anna May Wong: Empress of Chinatown on October 7 and 8 to highlight the role of the Chinese American film star in Hollywood’s portrayal of Chinese and Chinese Americans.

We talked to Metrograph’s head of programming, Aliza Ma, about Imaginary Chinatown for her take on what these films present and represent and how they, some of them problematic in their portrayals of Chinese, fit into discourses on culture, race, and identity.

Tell us about how the idea for this series came about. Was there a large pool of films to choose from and what was your process in arriving at the final selection of films?

I’ve always been fascinated by Chinatown. Although it’s a place that signifies the East, its provenance is mostly Western. Chinatown a sort of double mirror: built up as a city within a city, it’s a a simulacra of Chinese culture that defines itself against the identity of its surroundings; a safe haven for the culturally dislocated; where emigres from far flung places go to seek out familiar cultural elements like food, language, and in the past, cinema. In turn, it ascribes a Western construct of Chineseness to the Chinese people abroad.

Since Metrograph is located right in one of the most historic, storied Chinatowns in the world, I’ve been wanting to show a selection of films that feature scenes set in this neighborhood. There are a lot of them out there, varying in style and genre throughout film history. For this specific program I wanted to show studio films made by non-Asian filmmakers. These are films suspended in imagination and artifice. They are highly stylized, and make use of Chinatown as almost a stage within a stage. Taken as a whole, an interesting dual portrait emerges of how studio filmmaking has used Chinatown as a device for storytelling while also providing a snapshot of complex attitudes towards Asian culture throughout the decades.

The selection of films is diverse, spanning different genres and eras, both on screen and when the films were made. Was there anything about or in any of the films that surprised you?

I rewatched all of these films, and they all have some jaw-dropping surprises in them. Where do you start? The completely Gonzo slow-but-deadly car chase sequence in Jade? The magician-medicine man in Alice who makes Mia Farrow invisible? Literally anything in Big Trouble in Little China? Sometimes, Chinatown feels like Wonderland in these films: they’re either hyperbolic fantasy spaces where anything can happen, or vice-ridden opium dens where anything can be bought and sold. Cimino’s Year of the Dragon was shot on location, but looks like a crazy built-up studio set. Gangs of New York poignantly pivots to a present-day view of the neighborhood that points to all that has gone on and all the people who’ve passed through here over the last century in a single cut. But the funny thing about that film is, Scorsese built the set for the old neighborhood in Cinecitta studios including a cavernous Chinatown club, despite the fact that there wasn’t much of a Chinese population here yet in 1864.

A few years ago, the Through the Looking Glass exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art was considered problematic by some for presenting a fantasy of China. Here a fantasy — rooted mystery, vice, or the fantastical — is presented about Chinatown. Should these films be considered problematic as well? Should they be rejected? What’s the takeaway from this series?

It’s impossible not to cringe at the representation of Chineseness (or other cultures for that matter) in, say, Broken Blossoms or The Bowery from today’s perspective, but it’s important to look at them as works of Western art. As such, they should not be ignored. They should be shown—as all art should be shown—with a contemporary perspective and framed in their historical perspective, and discussed. The problems you state above are certainly part of the subtext of the series, but I am also endorsing these films as great works of art. Ultimately, I want the program to provoke questions and discussion rather than close off conversation.

I programmed an Anna May Wong sidebar to go with the Imaginary Chinatown series. She was born in Los Angeles Chinatown, spent her adolescence going to the movies, and her career performing Chineseness in American (and later European) films. She’s neither of the West nor the East, but embodies a kind of complex, liminal identity that I think represents the spirit of this series quite well.

We also have Jack Tchen, scholar and the co-founder of Museum of Chinese In America coming to introduce The Bowery and Old San Francisco, and I can’t wait to hear what he has to say about these films.

A few of the films were the first opportunities for Asian Americans to be on screen. Can you tell us about these early roles?

It’s interesting to see the evolution of the portrayal of Chinese characters throughout the films in the series. At first they were played by white actors, and then they were played mostly by Chinese character actors. While these weren’t exactly fleshed-out or realistic characters, they were some of the earliest opportunities for Chinese actors on the big screen. One endlessly fascinating person who you’ll see in both Big Trouble in Little China and Alice, is Victor Wong (1927-2001). He always brought incredible gravitas to the exaggerated roles he was given by the studios. He also studied journalism at Berkeley, painting with Rothko and was friends with Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Jack Kerouac. Despite the clear issues with the roles he played, I find it very moving to see him onscreen today.

Today, have Hollywood and people’s expectations moved away from imaginary Chinatowns? Is there enough out there for a “Real Chinatown” series?

It’s hard to say. Independent films and documentaries have certainly moved away from harsh stereotypes. A lot of the films in the program probably couldn’t be made by studios nowadays. They all had medium sized budgets and a traditional theatrical release. Some acquired cult status later on in their existence. Films just don’t get made or released like that anymore. Also, perhaps studio films aren’t really the place to go looking for realism. In the program, you have surrealism, tangled up cultural metaphors, historical revisionism, and a lot of great, thrilling cinema. For a person who originally comes from China such as myself, these films are like fascinating amusement park rides, completely removed from the reality of my culture, but reflective of a specific history of Chinese identity in America. I sincerely hope people will come see them.

Imaginary Chinatown continues with screenings of seven more films through October 8, and Anna May Wong: Empress of Chinatown screens its four films on October 7 and 8.  Both series are at Metrograph, 7 Ludlow Street.

Lead image: Top row: Stills from Broken Blossom and Old San Francisco; Bottom row: Stills from Big Trouble in Little China and Chinatown